Taking back control of your mental health

A quick look at what you can do to help your mental health, especially if you find yourself (or someone you love) going through a bad period of health.

By Steve Whyley / 16 March 2017
8 min read

As I have written before, my wife has suffered (and continues to suffer - on and off) with anxiety. 

Anxiety is often misunderstood. It can be incredibly debilitating and the worst thing about it is that it can come on from no where and without reason. The best way I can describe it is that you’re faced with someone who is just paralysed with fear, unable to communicate effectively and on the verge of total panic. As I have previously said, in my wife’s case when she suffers from an anxiety attack she struggles to sleep such are the severity of physical symptoms. Laying next to her you can feel her shake as adrenaline pumps through her body. Often freezing cold, or boiling hot, she tosses and turns desperately seeking comfort. Then there’s the chest pains. She describes these as someone standing on her chest - a tightness so intense that she feels like she’s having a heart attack. In fact, in the early days, that’s exactly what we thought she had. We even went to the hospital on three separate occasions such was our concern. She had ECG’s, heart monitors and other apparatus fitted to her all of which showed nothing. The lack of sleep was becoming greater and greater.

The horrible thing about anxiety is that it often feels like it is controlling you and taking over your life - your personal relationships, your work - everything. And when you are going through a particularly bad spell you just can't imagine yourself getting better, and perhaps you won't unless you take some action.

So what can you do?

First things first, as the partner make sure you involve yourself in their anxiety. Find out how they are feeling and try and notice trends and triggers because chances are they won't. Communicate on the days they are feeling better to try and identify things that you, the partner, did well and did not do so well. Ultimately, just make sure that they know they are loved. Make countless cups of tea, give them a hug and do your best to take their mind off of things when they are experiencing an attack - could be trying to get them to go to the cinema, or trying to bake a cake together. The anxious mind is unlikely to get better mid attack if you allow anxious thoughts to fester. It's your job to try and pull them out of it if you possibly can. You may think this sounds exhausting, trust me it is a walk in the park compared to what the anxiety sufferer suffers with.


Doctor

Aside from being there for your partner, make sure they have a really good/understanding doctor. My wife had previously had poor doctor after poor doctor who were not very communicative and who just tried to get rid of her/fob her off. They put her on the wrong medication - they put her on a Benzo (Lorazepam). It transpired this drug is not an SSRI type of drug, i.e. one that you are not meant to be on long term. Her doctor though had her on it for a year (as they were effectively treating her for the wrong thing) - this made her more ill than what she needed to be, and also meant when she came off the medication she endured terrible withdrawal symptoms. The worst feeling in the world is seeing the person you love suffer and not being able to do a single thing to help her and suffer she did. I remember her not going to bed for 48 hours such was the severity of the withdrawal - she was shaking, white as a sheet and was as upset as I'd ever seen her which devastated me. So my advice would be to definitely spend some time understanding medications that doctors recommend. It was a big regret of ours.

We wanted to find a doctor that was understanding so she trialed with different people - she tended to find younger doctors more understanding of mental health, and also found women to be generally more supportive. Make a note of some of your symptoms and discuss your options - don't just accept what they say, challenge them and try and find out what your options are. We've found a great doctor now that we have complete trust in and the doctor doesn't just throw pills at us. For example, we were prescribed yoga which has definitely helped my wife no end. I attempted it, failed miserably, but I did buy her a mat! So my guilt is lowered! Pills definitely work for some people and can absolutely put you back onto a level footing, but they don't have to be the only answer and a doctor's role isn't limited to just prescribing medication. 

A doctor's role isn't limited to just prescribing medication.

Counsellor

Second, and you can do this in parallel, is find yourself a good private counsellor. We didn't necessarily know why she felt such consistent anxiety (back then) and she didn't know what to do when she suffered from bad spells of it. Originally she had a counsellor who she saw weekly for a couple of months but she ultimately felt like the relationship wasn't working and that she didn't click with her. So she changed and found another one - this one was great and my wife immediately got a good feeling from her. For example, the counsellor came to visit her for the first few months rather than my wife having to travel. Rare I know, but there are counsellors who's sole priority is the health of the client and that money is a bonus. The first counsellor played to the rules, and went through the motions. At no point did I feel that she truly cared about my wife. However, the second counsellor went above and beyond - always putting my wife first.

Through this counsellor my wife was able to identify triggers that caused her anxiety and learned of techniques to try and manage it. It's something she will never be free from but she is now able to more effectively manage her reaction to anxious thoughts and feelings. If you can afford to go Private I think that would be really useful as the NHS just take so long to get you a session.

To begin to look for a counsellor go here - http://www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk/ and select your area and what you believe you may be suffering from. Then it is a case of working through their profile's, view what skills they have and what they specialise in. Again, you may feel more comfortable with a man/woman, young/old. etc. Each person will have their own website which you can then research further and begin to build up a list of people that you think may be appropriate. A session costs around £40-£60 and I'd really recommend recording it which is what my wife did. This allowed us to go back through recordings (when appropriate) as there's lots of information that it can be hard to take it all in. By recording it we were then able to set weekly goals/tasks based on what had been discussed in that session.

My wife has gone over a year without seeing a counsellor such is the progress she's made but just knowing we have this counsellor available to us is of great comfort.

As well as counselling try to encourage anxiety and mental health to not be a taboo subject. If you can open up to friends about it then great - it will definitely be a big help.

Diet

My wife has a lot of allergies and we started a food diary. We were amazed to see that when we had some particular meals that an anxiety attack seemed to follow hours/a day later. There could be absolutely nothing in this but since cutting out foods that triggered anxious feeling she's certainly noticed a big improvement. Interestingly, my friend suffered from anxiety and it transpired he was lactose intolerant. He cut out lactose and is now largely anxiety free. My wife, weirdly, seems to suffer if she eats food with tomatoes or chilli's. I can't explain it but the reading I have done suggest diet (caffeine and sugar especially) is linked to Anxiety.

Create a set of positive routines. By this I mean - plan meals for the week, make sure you've got food in the house. Write to do lists, don't go to bed thinking did I lock the door - create a routine that you follow every single night that gets the person into bed with as empty a mind as possible. Anxiety sufferers tend to operate at their best when there's routine and so this kind of thing can be vital. My wife for example enjoys going to bed slightly earlier and reading. She'll aim to avoid social media late at night. Small things like this on their own may not make you better, but all added up can make a big difference.

My wife finds rigorous exercise makes no difference but to others it has saved their life - so definitely explore exercise and the benefits that that can have.

Live

Live your life! Temptation is there to not do anything and to live in your little bubble for fear you could spark an anxiety attack. But it is important that on the good days you seize opportunities to do things that you may not do on an anxious day. I think this is really important. It will help the person suffering to show them that they are capable of more than they think and it will stop you (as a couple/individual) from getting into a rut where anxiety becomes all consuming. Don't do things that could spark an attack - so don't announce a bungee jump (!) but perhaps go out for dinner or go watch a film etc. We were fearful of living our life for fear of an anxiety attack but that actually made anxiety more prevalent because all we were doing was waiting for an attack, talking anxiety and being controlled by it. Our life was totally consumed and it wasn't healthy. So you need to, where possible, live and do normal things. Enjoy good days, and try and make light of bad ones.

I think the important thing is to feel like you are taking some action. I appreciate it is an overwhelming task but I think once you begin taking some form of action then you feel positive that you are at least doing something about it. I think if you are able to find a doctor you like and who understands you, and a counsellor that you are comfortable with then the impact to your health and wellbeing will be massive. It's something that requires constant work, and understanding from others but it is something you can get better from and it is something you can make daily progress with. My wife now suffers from anxiety for only around 5-10% of the week, four years ago it was 90% of the week.

My final bit of advice - tell the person who is suffering that you love them. You can never tell them that enough.

I hope some of the advice in here is helpful, and I hope that you are able to make improvements like my wife has.

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